Danny McCarthy’s sound instalation at Triskel is based around the Proclamation

I think if I tore up the proclamation 30 years ago I could have wound up getting shot.”

Danny McCarthy’s sound instalation at Triskel is based around the Proclamation

Sound artist Danny McCarthy stands in Triskel Christchurch, enveloped in the lulls, whispers and fractured cacophonies of his latest installation, titled (Re)writing (Hi)story (A Sonic Opera).

Commissioned by the Triskel Arts Centre, which McCarthy helped to found in 1978, the piece combines sonic and visual elements in response to the wording of the 1916 proclamation.

The installation features the voices of three men, three women and three children reading from the proclamation, but if visitors imagine that they’ll hear the familiar words read by Pearse on the steps of the GPO on Easter Monday in 1916, they’re wrong.

Instead, McCarthy has applied the principles of composer John Cage, an adherent of zen Buddhism who wanted to remove ego from composition, using indeterminacy (chance elements which dictate the composition or performance of a piece of music) and various types of algorithmic composition.

Cage, best known for his ambient piece, 4’33, developed a process called mesostics for composing: similar to an acrostic poem, horizontal lines of text are arranged to form vertical words.

McCarthy used this technique to reorder the words of the proclamation before recording performers reading the arrangements, and uses a CD shuffle system to play back the recordings so that they are never replicated; every listener hears a completely new combination of voices.

“The sentences and wording of the proclamation come back in different guises,” he says. “You can’t go away and tell someone, ‘God, you should go in and listen to the quiet section,’ because it’ll never be the same again.”

The result is an occasionally beautiful and mesmerising sound-scape, largely devoid of any recognisable narrative. “It’s open to new interpretations and that’s how I think it should be,” McCarthy says. “The proclamation is not something that’s set in stone; we have to reinterpret everything all the time.”

McCarthy has been no stranger to political work in his art; during the H-Block hunger strikes of 1981 he produced an installation called H, where a vast capital H was planted with seeds and watered and tended through its life cycle: “I wanted to change how people even viewed the letter H in the context of that time. I wasn’t there when it happened, but I was told that the day Bobby Sands died the whole thing wilted.”

“I’ve also had work removed from the Crawford because it was political,” he says. “Sure, you can go back to Marxist philosophy and say that every art work is political, you can ask, ‘Who made this paint?’ But that doesn’t bother me anymore. I just want to make art.”

McCarthy’s message may not be political but he chose to include children’s voices as a symbol of hope for the future. One of the children was his own granddaughter: “When I recorded her, she struggled over the words; this beautiful innocence came across in her voice. When I played it back to her she said, ‘Grandad! I’m a much better reader than that, can I do it again?’ but if she had, it wouldn’t have had that beauty.”

McCarthy worked on his concept during a residency at the Rauschenberg Foundation earlier this year. Robert Rauschenberg, sometimes described as a neo-Dadaist, bought up properties on the island of Captiva in Florida in the 1960s, as developers began to recognise the island’s potential for lucrative holiday homes. The resulting estate is home to Rauschenberg’s studio.

Inspired by Rauschenberg’s Erased de Kooning Drawing, McCarthy produced a series of ‘Erased Proclamations’, paintings which erase the text of the proclamation, as well as collages of torn up and reordered proclamations to accompany his audio installation. And there’s no sign of anyone getting out a gun just yet.

  • (Re)writing (Hi)story (A Sonic Opera) is now on at Triskel, Cork

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